I am about to turn 12 – online anyway. You see, although I’m 21 years old at the moment, I stumbled across some information about online marketing that has put me in touch with my inner child.

On April 21, 2000 the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act went into effect. The act requires online services and websites to obtain parental consent before they can collect, use, disclose or display the personal information of children under 13. This may be the first time in history Congress has granted a right to minors that was not extended to adults. Count me in.

When it comes to giving out information online, what you don’t know can’t hurt you, I suppose – but it can certainly result in some interesting e-mail. The amount of personal information distributed on a regular basis through the Internet borders on frightening.

For instance, Yahoo! collects the following information from users signing up for various services: name, e-mail address, birth date, gender, occupation, industry, personal interests, address, Social Security number and assets. Its privacy statement also says that your information will be combined with that collected by its various business partners.

All this information can be shared with those partners as well. The company maintains that it will not rent, sell or share its users’ information to non-affiliated companies. Microsoft Networks gives the same spiel concerning its own privacy policy, but considering MSN and Yahoo! collectively appear to own half of the Internet, to be registered with either one is to give out your personal information rather indiscriminately.

When you sign up with Yahoo!, you have the opportunity to select which business partners will actually e-mail you. However, whenever the company gets a new business partner, you are automatically added to its mailing list unless you check back frequently to update your account preferences.

It’s also nice to know that in the case of a merger or hostile takeover, companies like Yahoo! will make all of your information available to the new owner and thus subject to the new company’s privacy policies.

Third party advertisers on these websites are another sticky situation. Yahoo!, MSN and other companies maintain that businesses that buy advertising space on their pages can insert cookies that are not subject to the host company’s privacy regulations.

A cookie is a text file automatically written to your computer when you visit a web page that records your activities while you are on the page.

Since third party advertisers can write their own cookies for corporate web pages, they have the opportunity to gather any information that you put down on the page – searches, for instance or your e-mail address – and file it away for their own use.

In its privacy statement, MSN lists 16 different ad agencies it does business with. If you want to stop any of them from sending and receiving cookies from your computer, you have to visit each of their sites individually and file a request. Microsoft was not nice enough to list their web addresses.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I’m not saying that companies are plotting this thoroughly or doing anything evil. All I am saying is that the amount of information that changes hands daily on the Internet is a bit disconcerting, that e-mail ads come from somewhere, and that I am 12. Just 12.

Josh Braun is the Daily Nexus science and technology editor. He is watching you – just kidding.